Thomas Edison is the most prolific inventor in history. He was known as the wizard of Menlo Park. His greatest invention was not the incandescent lightbulb. He never received a patent for his greatest invention. His best invention was the Research Laboratory. He put together: investors, facilities, equipment, systems of investigation and experimentation and a talented staff. Together they developed the most significant inventions of the last two centuries.
They invented the incandescent lightbulb, the carbon microphone (which became the basis for the telephone), the phonograph, the movie camera, projector, and hundreds more. These devices completely changed how we live. Let us take a closer look.
The lightbulb made indoor lighting accessible and affordable. Before the lightbulb, indoor lighting was difficult, dirty, time consuming or expensive and a fire hazard. You could chop, dry and store wood for the fireplace. You could use candles or oil lamps. If you lived in a city, you may have gas lights. Because of limited lighting people would do more activities outside in the sunlight. The next option would be to work near a window. Daylight was a precious thing so people would get up early to take advantage of it. They would also go to bed closer to sundown. In the evenings families would tend to congregate in the same room to share the light. For entertainment, one person nearest the light might read and the others would listen. Or someone would tell a story.
The lightbulb changed all that. Now we sleep in late. Then we stay up till all hours of the night or the wee hours of the morning. Sleep deprivation is a major health concern. Families no longer spend time together; they isolate themselves in separate rooms. They no longer have shared interactive activities. Those have been replaced by parallel activities, where they sit in the same room watching the same TV, thinking that they are spending time together. The lightbulb changed our lives dramatically, but not necessarily in a good way. When it comes to technology, we tend to look at the obvious good things and we ignore the more subtle side effects.
I will discuss the next items as a group. The carbon microphone, phonograph, movie camera and projector. The microphone made large gatherings and performances possible. The modern rock concert entertains tens of thousands of people at one time.
The phonograph made possible permanent recordings of voices, music and sounds of all kinds. No longer does a person need to be there when it happens. These experiences can now be shared around the world. The recording travels rather than the people. Not only do recordings travel from one place to another, but they also travel through time. Recordings can be saved for generations. They can also be reproduced, with millions of copies being made.
What the phonograph did for sound, the movie camera did for moving images. It was not long before others developed ways to put sound and moving images together.
These marvelous inventions changed our lives. They particularly changed entertainment. Up until the time of Edison, entertainment was limited to small personal gatherings. Sometimes persons with particularly strong voices could entertain crowds of several hundred or even a few thousand. That was the exception and was limited to large urban centers. For most people entertainment was a family affair. Someone in the family would learn to play an instrument. The piano, guitar, violin, or something else. They would play for each other. Sometimes they would gather around the piano and sing together. If guests came over there would always be a little concert. Edison changed all that. Large performances replaced the small ones. Playing music and singing in the home was gradually replaced by recordings. Even the large stage performances were replaced by movies. The cost of entertainment dropped. Due to mass production recordings and movies were widely distributed and cheap. Everyone could afford to go to a movie occasionally. Now everyone could see the very best entertainers.
But what happened to the rest of the entertainers? They had to compete with recordings and movies. The “starving artist” became the norm. The small artist became small and unappreciated because now he or she was compared with the major “stars”. Thomas Edison invented stardom, or at least he launch it to a whole new level. Most people gradually stopped learning to play instruments and sing. If they did it was for Church or for a school class or choir. If people did develop their talents, they would have few opportunities to share them.
Thomas Edison changed the world. Not just on the stage but also in our homes. He changed the way we viewed entertainment, he changed the way we purchased entertainment and how we consume it. He changed the idea of who could be an entertainer, or who could entertain. Entertainment became something left to the professionals. It was not long before entertainers became celebrities. People came to worship and admired people that they did not even know.
These inventions of Thomas Edison are seldom if ever used anymore. Newer and better versions have replaced them, but the changes they created remain. Incandescent lightbulbs have been replaced by LEDs. We now download electronic recordings to our smart phones. We watch movies in our living rooms on large flat screen televisions or on an iPad.
There is one more change that took place. Mass production led to mass consumerism. It changed what was produced. The small local audience of the past had content that was tailored for them. Mass production is designed for the mass audience. They develop content for the broadest market.
The most dramatic effect has been in electronic media news. In the past people would come out to local lectures. They would attend the city council meetings or read the local newspaper to find out what was happening. Now we turn to electronic news media. They only cover national news because it has the largest market. Now we look for national leaders for solutions to local problems. Just as major media creates a one size fits all approach, the national leaders have a one size fits all approach. Cities and States have lost their character and their individuality. We are no longer allowed to be different. We are required to conform to standards set by persons who we don’t know and who don’t know us. Just like entertainment has left the home and moved to the national stage, law and regulations and local control has gradually vanished. Celebrity politicians have made their way into our homes to influence and control us.
I blame Thomas Edison. He and his team of inventors gave us the tools that made it happen. Was it intentional? No. Thomas Edison is not some type of villain. He did not have evil intent. There is no way he could have envisioned far reaching effects of his inventions of society. Once the inventions were unleashed the results were inevitable. That is how it is with technology. We see all the promise of how it will make life better. We do not consider the side effects. It is impossible to have one without the other. That is the way it is. Technology will never be held back for the public good. Its destructive power will always accompany the good and will often override it.
Was Thomas Edison a hero or a villain? To me he will always be one of my heroes for his amazing ability to invent and change the world. At the same time, he will be a bit of a villain to me for what was swept away in the wake of his inventions. Is there a way to embrace the good parts of change and prevent the negative? I do not think so. It makes me sad and a bit frightened about the future.